Culture and Symbolic Violence

Culture entails models of social reality that humans take for granted. It encompasses shared understandings of ways of seeing and feeling that comprise the social roles by which humans connect with each other to form society, which, in the Durkheimian sense, is a suis generis enity that embodies a mutual social consciousness. Culture calls attention to the ways social norms establish social identity, which inherently reflects the ways in which humans present themselves in social life, and the means by which they actively organize themselves for collective purposes; it is the capacity to socially determine what is defined as 'responsible' human activity (Meyer & Jepperson, 2000). Culture, thus, is a shared pattern of socialization combined with an implicit system of reinforcement of certain values of prescribed behavior.

In this sense, culture is related to the process by which human activity comes to be normatively held in place—institutionalization. It defines the “the way in which [...] cultural rules define the meaning [...] of [social] activity” (Meyer et. al. 1987). This sense of meaning is not found in mere objective social reality, but rather is contingent on the extent to which cognition is constructed by the social surroundings with in which individuals function (Meyer et. al. 1987) As such, it does not take humans as a priori entities, but as reified 'subjects' with internalized understandings of social action. Pierre Bourdieu (1991: 250) defines this process as a 'mode of existence'.

Culture elucidates the essence of subconscious cognitive 'scripts', which are inscribed in 'common sense' descriptions of how humans behave (Meyer et. Al: 1997). Pierre Bourdieu (1984:468) identifies these 'scripts' as 'embodied social structures'. These 'embodied social structures' are a totality in the form of a symbolic system that channels deep social structural comprehensions (Swartz 1997: 83), to such an extent that human behavior can befittingly be comprehended and understood specifically in terms of the interrelationship what constitutes actors and whose subjectively meaningful behavior, in turn, constitute society (Krasner, 2009: 95). As such, culture “organize[s] human masses, [and] form[s] the terrain on which [they] move [...]” (Gramsci, 1988: 199).

It must be noted, however, that culture is not just the formation of an identity, and thus the means by which humans are social integrated, but also can serve as an instrument of domination. In this sense, it is a source of manipulation that serves as a legitimation of unjust social relations. Accordingly, culture fundamentally rests on intrinsic processes that manufacture s ‘logic of difference’, of differential deviation' (Swartz, 1997: 96), a classification complex of inclusion and exclusion.
[...] all agents in a given social formation share a set of basic perceptual schemes, which receive the beginnings of objectification in the pairs of antagonistic adjectives commonly used to classify and qualify persons or objects in the most varied of practice. The network of oppositions between high (sublime, elevated, pure) and low (vulgar, low, modest), spiritual, and material, fine (refined, elegant) and coarse (heavy, fat, crude, brutal), light (subtle, lively, sharp, adroit) and heavy (slow, thick, blunt laborious clumsy), free and forced, broad and narrow, or, in other another dimension, between unique (rare, different, distinguished, exclusive singular, novel) and common (ordinary, banal, commonplace, trivial, routine), brilliant (intelligent) and dull (obscure, gray, mediocre) is the matrix of all commonplaces which find such ready acceptance because behind them lies the whole social order (Bourdieu 1984: 468)
Culture is a mechanism of producing homologies through which meanings are obtained via contrastive relations that constitute an objective existence of social oppositions. According to Bourdieu (1984: 468), while all agents in given social formation share a set of basic perceptual schemes, the essence of contrast predisposes humans to organize the social world according to a logic of polarity; this is what Bourdieu (1984) defines as symbolic power, which is the simultaneous act of constructing conceptual and social discrimination.
[...] if one takes seriously both the Durkheimian hypothesis of the social origins of schemes of thought, perception, apperception, and action and the fact of class divisions, one is necessarily driven to the hypothesis that a correspondence exists between social structures (strictly speaking, power structures) and mental structures (Bourdieu, 1991).
Symbolic power is, hence, a 'world-making power', whereby the essential material differentiating social contexts are ‘naturalized’. Symbolic power generates symbolic violence:

To say it more rigorously: social agents are knowing agents who, even when they are subjected to [some form of] determinism, contribute to producing the efficacy of that which determines them insofar as they structure what determines them. And it is almost always in the “fit” between determinants and the categories of perception that constitute them as such that the effect of domination arises (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992).
[This] presupposes on the part of those who are subjected to it a form of complicity which is neither a passive submission to an external constraint nor a free adherence to values [...] The specificity of symbolic violence resides precisely in the fact that it requires of the person who undergoes it a [certain] [manifested social] attitude [...] (Bourdieu 1982:36).
[As such, social] [l]egitimation of the social world is not [...] the product of a deliberate and purposive action of propaganda [..]; it results, rather, from the fact that agents apply to the objective structures of the social world structures of perception and appreciation which are issued out of these very structures and which tend to picture the world as evident (Bourdieu 1982: 36).
In this sense, symbolic violence involves misrecognition, which is the mechanism by which symbolic power forces humans to objectify their social world and accept as is, with all its apparent disparities (Bourdieu & Wacquant: 1992). Culture incorporates socially understood dispositions that formulate structures of perception by which humans accept “postulates [and] axioms [that] go without saying and require no inculcating” (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992). It is akin to the Marxian idea of 'false conscientiousness', introduced by Mannheim (1959 [1936]: 340), in which “[...] knowledge is distorted [...] when [...] it attempts to conceal [reality] by thinking of [it] in categories that are inappropriate [...].” Thus, “persons falsify to themselves the elementary facts of human existence by deifying, romanticizing, or idealizing them, conjuring up [delusionary] interpretations of [social] experience (Mannheim 1959 [1936]: 340).

This is similar to the Gramscian idea of ideological or 'expansive hegemony', by which a “multiplicity of dispersed wills, with heterogeneous aims, are welded together with a single aim, on the basis of an equal and common conception of the [social] world” (quoted in Jones 2006: 53). Symbolic violence is thus suppression of alternative world-views through the establishment of parameters that define what is socially deemed as reasonable, sane, practical, good, and ‘true’. Fundamentally, it promotes an unquestioning canonical 'idea system' (Wallerstein, 2000: 272).

To provide an illustration, it is useful to relate symbolic violence to ideal-type human being as that of the instrumentally rational single-minded seeker of maximum utility. According to this ideological conviction, the surrounding within which social action takes place is conceived as an endless array of opportunity costs. Individuals are not seen as to perceive themselves as parts of larger interconnected and interdependent social wholes, but instead as fable bees that are up against incontrovertible forces of the impersonal social institution of the capitalist market, which is characteristically governed by the modus operandi of selfishness. Social positions with respect to income and prestige is a matter of natural law; if individuals have appropriate moral virtues and exercise responsibility, jurisprudence, self-control, and unremitting hard work, it is socialy believed they can easily become capitalist entrepreneurs if the so-called Protestant ethic is taken seriously. In relating 'individuals' to ‘nation-states’, Wallerstein (2000: 283) writes:

All states can develop, all states shall develop [...] if some states have developed earlier and faster than others, it is because they […] been more individualistic […] or in some way more 'modern'. If other states have developed more slowly, it is because there is something in their [innate characteristics] which prevents them or has thus far prevented them from becoming as [progressed] as other states.

Symbolic violence fosters obeisance to competitive strife as a form of natural social harmony. Culture, as such, is an apocryphal sense of 'moral discipline' that convinces humans that they are nothing but atoms with no authentic ties that extend deeper and beyond moments of economic exchange. It serves as deceptive palliative in which social location has no affectation on social outcomes.

[The strong are deemed] more [instrumentally] rational, more disciplined, more hard-working, more self-controlled, more independent, while the [weak] are more [...] self-indulgent, more lazy, [...] more dependent (Wallerstein, 2000: 277).

The question is how is symbolic power that is translated into symbolic violence altogether socially produced? Bourdieu answers the question by developing the concept of symbolic labor, which he defines as those 'intellectual specialists, e.g. writers, teachers, professors, philosophers, etc. who advance the theoretical formulations, apparatuses, and ideations that in turn prescribe the cognitive distinctions that mask social inequalities” (Swartz, 1997: 93). They are the authorized agents, or generalized 'others', (Meyer & Jepperson, 2000) who coordinate the institutionalization of shared understandings and beliefs that ultimately transform unequal social relations into socially 'legitimate' social relations.

To what extent can 'world society theory' as developed by John W. Meyer et. al (1997) be construed as a form symbolic violence? According to the theory the social world is a society that embodies a global collective social consciousness, and, thus, a worldwide cultural cosmology of shared understandings of rational social action. Subconscious cognitive 'scripts' are international in nature, and represent institutionalizations that define the meaning and identity of actors in the international arena... They specify 'the way things' ought to work' in the international context and frames the global 'mode of existence'.

The nation state is the internationally collectively understood fundamental unit of rational social action. Hence, they are isomorphic in terms of structure and organization due to generalized implicit inculcation of what is regarded as necessary for legitimate recognition in world affairs. This is routinely represented by common taken-for-granted assumptions with respect to nation-state law-based control systems, professionalization, citizenship, and the means to accomplish goals in regards to processes like economic development. These assumptions are derived from exogenous world cultural rules of what defines purposiveness in world society, and they are spread and diffused via global symbolic labor involved in international associations like the United Nations, World Bank, IMF, UNESCO, etc.

Symbolic labor involved in the diffusion of worldwide cultural rules lead to what Meyer et. al (1997) note as ‘expansive structuration’, whereby nation-states ceremonially advertise some meaningful identity in the international political economy. The inherent problem is that many nation-states suffer from a variety of inequalities with respect to the resources needed for such ‘expansive structuration’. The diffusion of world-wide cultural models of social action engenders contradiction.

World culture reflects ideals that are more often than not beyond what is practicable for most countries. This is leads to what is known as 'decoupling'. For example, economically weaker nation-states are likely to import specific principles of internationally recognized forms of economic advancement, yet on-the ground realities make such formal presentation a matter of 'organized hypocrisy'.
It is at this point that one can invoke the concept symbolic violence to 'world society theory'. The seemingly universal ethos of ‘economic progress’ ignores socially-specific factors particular within geographical and historical contexts that set nation-states on adverse path-dependencies. Symbolic violence would be evidenced by the international community, including leaders of the deprived country, interpreting the condition as a reflection of ‘economic backwardness’. The end result would be the proliferation of judgments in the international community that deem country as culturally incapable of recognizing what is appropriate to escape their deprivation. The international community would respond with an assessment of the nation state's condition and provide assistance to correct its underdevelopment (Myer et. al, 1997), however, in actuality, it would be motivated by ideologies that are meant to stain global inequalities (Wallerstein, 2000: 278), rather than rectify them.

By way of conclusion, culture is a catch-22. On the one hand, it tries to make sense of the social work, yet on the other hand, it acts as a protective shrubbery of society with inherent actualities of social injustice. Symbolic violence which culture precipitates essentializes social reality by denying it edification. This leads to, in the final instance, confusion, distortion, and intellectual ambiguity.


Bourdieu, Pierre (1982), Ce que parler vent dire. L'economie des echanges linguistiques. Paris: Artheme Fayard

Bourdieu, Pierre (1984), Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Bourdieu, Pierre (1987), “On what makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of groups,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology (32): 1-18

Bourdieu, Pierre (1991), Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Bourdieu, Pierre (1991), “Genesis and Structure of the Religious Field”. Comparative Social Research (13): 1-43

Bourdieu, Pierre & Loic Wacquant (2004) “Symbolic Violence,” in Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Philipp Bourgois (eds.) Violence in War and Peace. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing

Gramsci, Antonio (1988), Selected Writings 1916-1935. New York: Shocken Books

Jones, Steve (2006), Antonio Gramsci. New York: Routledge.

Krasner, Steven D. (2009), Power, the Sate, and Sovereignty. New York: Routledge

Mannheim, Karl. (1959 [1936]) Ideology and Utopia New York: Harcourt Brace.

Meyer, John W, John Boli, & George M. Thomas (1987), “Ontology and Rationalization in the Western Cultural Account” in George M. Thomas, John W. Meyer, Francisco O. Ramirez, and John Boli (eds.) Constituting State, Society, and The Individual. London: Sage

Meyer, John W., John Boli, & Francisco Ramirez (1997), “World Society and the Nation-State”. American Journal of Sociology (103): 144-81

Meyer, John W. & Ronald L. Jepperson (2000), “The 'Actors' of Modern Society: The Cultural Construction of Social Agency. Sociological Theory (18): 100-120

Sallach, David L (1974), “Class Domination and Ideological Hegemony”. The Sociological Quarterly (15): 38-50

Swartz, David (1997), Culture & Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. (2000), The Essential Wallerstein. New York: The New Press.


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